I was rather surprised to read Nigel Kennedy’s outspoken criticism of his contemporaries following his recent and well-received Proms performance of solo Bach.
In a broadside at fellow musicians, he said that some were sidelining Bach into “a rarefied and effete ghetto” while others were turning “philosophical masterpieces” into “shallow showpieces”. He despaired at musicians who have “learned the same technical way [and who] all play the same technical way”.
Sweeping statements like this always perplex me. When I was an undergraduate and given, like most undergraduates, to long and bitter debates about social issues, I once found myself arguing with a classmate who claimed “feminists” were ruining society and men’s lives. When he paused for breath, I asked “Which feminists have done this?” He couldn’t name even one, which made him even crosser. And now that I live in small-town Idaho and quite frequently hear people claiming that they live their lives by the Ten Commandments, I always have to suppress that part of me that wants to demand in a loud, ringing voice, “Name them!” By the same token, I suppose I really want to know which celebrated violinists Nigel Kennedy thinks are ruining Bach, because I hadn’t noticed any of today’s top performers playing it in “the same technical way.” Who are these musical monsters?
In the next paragraph, Kennedy lambastes the historically informed performance practice movement:
He is particularly irritated by the soullessness of contemporary Bach interpretations, which he says lack passion, fire and dynamism. He also excoriates “so-called authentic” interpretations that use period instruments to re-create sounds that he claims early composers would think “unbelievably blinkered”. According to Kennedy, “specialists are pushing Bach into … a ghetto, which leaves many people feeling that Bach’s music is merely mathematical and technical. I see it as my job to try to keep Bach in the mainstream and present his music with, rather than without, its emotional core.”
In the programme notes he wrote: “Even the description of oneself as being ‘authentic’ is unbelievably arrogant – and, in the case of so-called ‘period’ performance, misguided. How can music … be authentic if it is stripped of passion and made into an exercise of painfully self-conscious technique?”
This puzzled me even more, since the term “authenticity” hasn’t been commonly in use by HIPPies since the 1980s. These days it’s mostly a philosophical term that doesn’t have anything to do with the early music movement. HIPP is, I suppose, a convenient whipping boy for people who baulk at using period instruments or subscribing to Early Music, but I do take issue with Kennedy’s assumption that it’s stripped of passion. Has he actually listened to any violinists playing on period instruments recently?
I wonder, for example, at anyone who could call Andrew Manze and Rachel Podger’s lively, vigorous interpretation of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043 passionless.
A few years ago, my quartet colleagues and I plucked up the courage to ask Mr. Manze to coach us on Beethoven’s Quartet op. 95 after a concert he gave in Boulder, where we were then based. He generously worked with us from 10 until midnight, despite having conducted a stunning performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (which he’d preceded with an infectiously impassioned 45-minute pre-concert talk). And he was still overflowing with energy and enthusiasm, although he must have been exhausted. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was one of the most exciting coachings I’ve ever had. No previous teacher had ever encouraged me to explore such radically colourful, ultra-expressive ways of producing sound on stringed instruments.
In spite of outbursts like Kennedy’s, I don’t think there really is some kind of bitter rift between HIPP and non-HIPP players. To me, the historical research that went into a performance is less important than whether the performance convinces and moves me, but to claim that academic curiosity into the circumstances of a work’s composition and the composer’s expectations is “mathematical” is to impoverish one’s own possibilities as an interpreter. I don’t disagree in the slightest with Kennedy’s veneration of Yehudi Menuhin, and I love Menuhin’s performance of the same Bach concerto alongside David Oistrakh just as much as the Manze-Podger version, just in a different way.
I’d argue that both performances are equally passionate–and equally convincing. It doesn’t matter to me that one set of performers are historically informed performance practitioners and the other set aren’t. Surely there’s room for both ways–and many other ways besides. Including Kennedy’s.